By Laura Prieto, Simmons College
I have come across several surprises in the reading room recently, as is entirely typical in manuscript research. One archival pleasure is finding what we hope is there, but another is encountering the unexpected.
I eagerly opened Sarah Louisa Guild’s diary for 1898 anticipating some insights on the Spanish-American War, as the MHS catalog promised. I was seeking a woman’s personal view of that conflict and Guild did not disappoint me. Her observant, intelligent entries demonstrate how avidly she followed news on the war as well as on local politics. She decried the “wretched Mugwumps who cry ‘down with imperialism’. . . . Mugwumps seem to always pull down but never build up.” Her partisan interests were likely influenced by her older brother Curtis; “Curty” had volunteered to fight and had political ambitions, supported by his family. But the passion with which she wrote about political candidates and issues suggests that “Lulu” would have been engaged by them anyway.
I feel fortunate to have Guild’s careful, candid thoughts on what was happening around her. As is the case with most war correspondence, her “homefront” letters did not make it into the archive, even though her brother’s letters from Army camp are preserved. Without her diary, we’d have no trace of what Sarah Louisa made of the war or of her relationship to it.
But her diary is much richer than just political commentary. Guild wrote about her love of music and included capsule reviews of the concerts she attended. Sometimes I’d turn a page and find a pressed flower, or a four-leaf clover. One tiny pansy came from a bouquet sent to comfort her upon the death of her mother. Guild always appreciated such tokens of affection; she especially noted how one gift of flowers came from a friend who hadn’t much money. (Guild later sent that friend a ticket to the Boston Symphony.) The diary is also a record of Guild’s mourning and her declining health. She consulted doctors and tried bromides and tonics to no avail. She wrote the last entries from a sanatorium in Connecticut that specialized in treating nervous diseases.
On occasion, Guild trained her sights on others in her social set. One unusually acerbic entry remarked upon the death of Isabella Stewart Gardner’s husband in 1898:
Mr. Jack Gardner was seized with apoplexy at noon at the Somerset. He was carried to his Beacon St home and died at 9 P.M. Good natured clumsy man! Wonder if his nervous & fashion loving wife will marry again. He was like a Newfoundland dog at her heels.
Guild’s judgment reminds us that late nineteenth-century women continued to be the makers and breakers of reputation among the privileged classes. Such barbs could sting deeply, as any fan of Edith Wharton knows. Gardner no doubt could wield mighty social muscle in her own defense.
Pressed flowers and sharp-tongued gossip: it’s just such unexpected interruptions that helpfully unsettle what we think we’re researching. I opened her diary searching for a “good source,” but find the privilege of glimpsing Sarah Louisa Guild, a complete, complicated human being who is more than the sum of her words.